'Beaver tourism': can it work?

Eurasian beaver

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Reintroducing a species is never easy. The cause is championed by some, while critics question the wisdom of the species' return, as with the case of the European beaver's return to Scotland.

Hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 16th century, the beavers are part of an official reintroduction trial in Knapdale Forest, Argyll.

Since the trial began, controversy has surrounded the project but it could be that reintroduced species can benefit local economies as well as ecosystems.

Given that the beaver is the first extinct native mammal to officially return to the wild in Britain - the wild boar has also come back, but by accident rather than design - you might think this would be cause for celebration.

But the beaver continues to cause controversy, with a small but persistent alliance of landowners, anglers and foresters ranged against its return.

Beavering away

A beaver

Viewers of this year's Autumnwatch will be familiar with the beavers at the Aigas Field Centre near Beauly in the Highlands where Sir John Lister-Kaye set up a beaver demonstration project in advance of the official reintroduction scheme.

Ecologists, including Sir John Lister-Kaye, accept that occasionally beavers may cause problems, for example by damaging crops such as maize, carrots and barley, though usually only on a small scale. They suggest that compensation schemes could easily be put in place to recompense any affected farmers and landowners, and manage what he calls "the occasional troublesome beaver".

The success of once-controversial reintroductions, such as the white-tailed sea eagle and the red kite, suggests that once these teething troubles have been overcome and a wild creature has re-established itself, attitudes towards them gradually change.

Objections start to fade away, being replaced at first by cautious welcome, and then by positive enthusiasm about the benefits these creatures bring to the local community. The huge increase in the number of people visiting the Isle of Mull to see the sea eagles, bringing well over £5 million a year to the island's economy, and creating many jobs as a result, is a classic case in point.

Environmental historian Dr Rob Lambert, from the University of Nottingham, believes there has been an important evolution in the reasons why we choose to bring back formerly extinct wild mammals.

"Historically, we have reintroduced these creatures for romantic reasons, for sport, to assuage our guilt and latterly to restore damaged ecosystems. In the 21st century the return of large mammals to our landscapes can also have enormous economic benefits to remote rural areas, by providing engaging nature tourism experiences for everyone," he said.

Beaver Wildlife enthusiasts enjoy watching beavers in their natural habitat

In the current tough economic conditions, beavers could bring a much-needed boost to the Highlands in the form of eco-tourism. In the six years since the Aigas experiment began, more than 3,000 people have enjoyed watching "wild" beavers in the Scottish landscape.

Given that, as Dr Lambert points out, close to 300,000 people annually go to see nesting ospreys at Loch Garten and other UK nest sites, the potential for "beaver tourism" is surely enormous.

Secret beavers

So what of the "secret beavers" - the population which, unbeknownst to many people, has already established itself on the River Tay? These accidentally escaped from captivity in 2001, but the news only became known a few years later, when trees thought to have been damaged by vandals turned out to have been felled by beavers.

In the years since then, the authorities have played down the numbers involved, suggesting that only a handful of animals are roaming free. However, many expert observers believe that the Tay beaver population contains at least 100, and probably as many as 150 individuals, a figure that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) now grudgingly accepts.

Why beavers are beneficial

  • Conservationist Sir John Lister-Kaye says all aspects of wetland ecology could benefit: "Beavers restore existing wetlands and create new ones".
  • Beavers can assist salmon reproduction by creating "fish nurseries" in ponds and lagoons, and by increasing the number of invertebrates on which the young salmon feed.
  • Beavers also create new habitats for amphibians such as frogs and newts, and for our fastest declining native mammal, the water vole.
  • By thinning out the trees, which allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, beavers can help to create new nesting sites for birds such as the redstart and pied flycatcher - both currently in decline.
  • On a national scale, ecologist Derek Gow has suggested that instead of causing floods, beavers would actually help to prevent them, pointing out that their dams would hold water upriver after heavy rain, releasing it downstream gradually instead of in a rush.
  • This has been confirmed by studies in Europe where, following successful reintroduction schemes in 24 countries, the beaver population has risen from a low point of just 1,200 individuals in 1,900, to well over 600,000 today.

At first, SNH tried to recapture the Tay beavers, suggesting that they were of the "wrong" genetic stock, so needed to be removed. Paul and Louise Ramsay, who have beavers living on their land at Bamff on a tributary of the Tay, campaigned to mobilise local people and other Scottish conservationists to halt the capture project.

Earlier this year SNH finally announced that it was suspending any attempts to capture beavers along the Tay, a decision that will be reviewed in 2015. In the meantime a working group has been set up to advise landowners on how to co-exist with beavers on their land.

But given that this population now seems to be fully established, any attempts to eradicate beavers from Scotland would now surely be a case of shutting the stable door long after this particular horse has bolted. Sir Lister-Kaye certainly thinks so, suggesting that by 2015 there could be as many as 300 beavers living wild in Scotland.

Proponents of beaver reintroduction also point to the fact that, under the European Habitats Directive, the British and Scottish governments are legally obliged to consider returning locally extinct native species to the wild.

The logic behind this is that by restoring species at the top of the food chain, the ecological balance of each habitat - and its fauna and flora - is restored. Unlike non-native species accidentally brought to Britain, such as the mink and grey squirrel, the beaver is, after all, a natural part of our ecosystems, and will therefore not threaten the survival of other native species.

The logical next step, of course, would be to return other charismatic creatures that once roamed the hills and forests of Scotland, such as the lynx, elk and even the wolf.

While bringing these back would undoubtedly cause even more controversy than the beaver, they would also help restore the current imbalance in our wild places - an imbalance that allows red deer populations to grow out of control, because of the lack of predators to keep them in check.

Beaver Beavers are now established in Scotland's wetlands

So what is the future of the beaver in Scotland? Sir Lister-Kaye is certainly optimistic, but he believes that more still needs to be done to educate people about the benefits.

"We do need a constant on-going educational effort, aimed at a new generation of young people who understand fundamental ecological principles and who can lend weight to the debate about the beaver," he said.

The reality is that, whether people like it or not, beavers are now firmly established in many of Scotland's river systems and wetlands. And polls show that the majority of the Scottish public welcomes this new - or rather returning - addition to their fauna.

Paul Ramsay suggests that instead of worrying about beavers, we should be celebrating their return.

"When you consider that in Europe as a whole this creature was on the very brink of extinction, and yet has made an incredible comeback, this is a fantastic conservation success story - and something we really should be boasting about," he said.

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